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The green Brooklyn

photo by Homer Ulanday


The biggest borough in New York City also happens to be the greenest. With parks, community organizations and a variety of businesses, it leads in citywide efforts to better the quality of life and protect the environment.

Brooklyn is conveniently located on the westernmost part of Long Island, right between Manhattan and the suburbs, with access to three main city bridges and an array of highways. It offers cheaper rents than Manhattan, with market reports showing commercial space fees starting at $29 per square foot in downtown Brooklyn compared to $40 in downtown Manhattan. It has a younger population with 22-55 year-olds, and high percentages of children under 14, that are more involved with green living than older generations and support green businesses.

But the notion of being green is still developing. So what exactly is a green business and how do you start one so that green lifestyle followers support it?

At the simplest level, green businesses use recycled products to build or decorate their locales. They also avoid wasting energy and water; they recycle and many times donate food or funds to charities. They also use products and resources from local vendors or fair-trade suppliers.

And according to Green America, a non-profit organization advocating for social justice, a green enterprise helps solve social and environmental issues by adopting principles, policies, and practices that improve the quality of life for people and the environment. The Web site offers guides to start green businesses based on these ideas, too. It advises entrepreneurs to “find a niche market, get certified as environmentally sound,” and “practice what you preach.”

In 2007 Jennie Dundas and her best friend Alexis Miesen decided to try this approach. Miesen wanted to sell ice cream in Park Slope, after noticing there were few ice cream shops there. Dundas liked the prospect, but was equally interested in being environmentally conscious. With little knowledge, they began their research and their business plan.

“You basically ask yourself with every decision, ‘is this the greenest decision I could make?’” Dundas said. “I think this is the wave of the future, once there’s enough of us doing this there’s not going to be a chance to go back.”

Dundas and Miesen invested time and money to start their shop in the borough they both lived, worked in, and loved. Unfortunately, despite good karma and a plethora of non-profit organizations that rally for greener options, there’s still no set model that businesses can follow. The women relied on Brooklyn non-profits to get information about recycled building products, estimates for energy efficiency and contacts to local farmers. Gathering the tools was a community process since opening green businesses is still a “trend” rather than a “norm” as Dundas said.

By August 2007 the two women had a designer, construction crew and suppliers. They learned that going green not only takes research, but also lots of money. Their recycled glass counter, for example, cost between $90-$200 per square foot. High prices expanded to the food supplies too. Their organic heavy cream, from locally raised, grass-only fed cows, costs $18 per gallon, triple the cost that mass food suppliers retail heavy cream for. After a $200,000 investment, their ice cream shop, Blue Marble Ice Cream, was opened in October of 2007.

Picture 3Two years later the business is going, with cones starting at $2.50, rivaling Ben and Jerry’s $3.25 price. Additionally, the businesswomen opened a second location in Brooklyn, in Boerum Hill.  However, Dundas said that the moral benefits of being eco-friendly take a toll on the monetary gains. In order to maintain the two businesses, the partners must dig into their profits. Although the second shop was easier and cheaper to start because it already had some green elements, they said that operating a green business became a mission rather than a way to get rich.

“We’re educating people, especially children, with our trash and recycling barrels. They learn about protecting the environment at school but they need to see the principles implemented in their community. Green lifestyles are possible and we’re proud we can run our business like we do,” Dundas said.

Although Brooklyn has more people like Dindas and Meisen around to start businesses, other boroughs are also capitalizing on this movement.

“Brooklyn tends to be less expensive across all property types relative to Manhattan,” said Jonathan J. Miller, president and CEO at Miller Samuel Inc. a real estate appraisal firm. “While the green phenomenon is a trend in Brooklyn it’s not unique to Brooklyn. What began as a marketing gimmick has evolved into a baseline amenity fueled by rising demand of green-aware consumers.”

In Brooklyn, its community seems to have made it a priority.

“Its nickname is the ‘People’s Republic of Brooklyn’ because it’s a progressive borough; it’s the most progressive borough of all boroughs. That general consciousness is focused on the environment right now because people realize we need to help in small or large ways and they want to be responsible,” said Nancy Romer. She has lived in Brooklyn for 36 years and helps lead the Brooklyn Food Coalition, a group advocating for more sustainable organic food options and green businesses in the borough.

And Brooklyn may just continue being a different and innovative place.
“I grew up in a city of neighborhoods that were created by immigrants so we would buy the specialty foods they made… people were welcoming and grew food in their gardens or would raise animals and have rotisserie spits in their back yard,” said Annie Hauck-Lawson, associate professor of foods and nutrition at Brooklyn College and co-author of New York based food book, Gastropolis. “We are such a diverse and creative community that will stay true to its roots and keep living from the earth and welcoming people.”

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Brooklyn, chocolate and two bearded brothers

Brooklyn, chocolate and two bearded brothers


They’re tall, they’re bearded and they make chocolate. Artisan chocolate.

Meet the Brothers Mast: Rick and Michael. Their company, Mast Brothers Chocolate, is slowly gaining momentum in Brooklyn.

Covered by The New York Times  as part of Brooklyn’s new culinary movement, the brothers launched their company three years ago with the help of “our mother and credit cards.”

But it was only in February that they moved into their rather spiffy factory, with steel chairs and a wooden table, the air within breezy yet steady, with the aroma of warm chocolate churning away, being tempered in another room.

Photo: Lucy Hamblin

Michael and Rick Mast. (Photo by Lucy Hamblin)

The 120-year-old building used to be a spice factory. No wonder then, its rustic and rather earthy feel. But rather than having the appearance of a factory, both its interior and exterior makes it look like a sturdy warehouse.

Three years ago, while Michael was taking film courses at NYU and dabbling in different productions, Rick had an epiphany.

Working as a chef at different restaurants in New York City and at private parties, Rick, who had studied with the chocolatier Jacques Torres, began serving confectionery, such as truffles, that he made from scratch. The feedback he received was encouraging, goading him to finally decide to launch his own company with his brother.

From very little equipment, a small room and burlap sacks, Mast Brothers Chocolate has come a long way.

But it’s been slow and steady, just the way Rick likes it.

He is resolute about continuing the production of personalized, bean to bar, artisan chocolate-making. From choosing which regions to import their cacao beans to personally visiting the farms and then making the chocolate – the nine to 15 varieties of chocolate are custom-made, from start to finish. Flavors include the traditional — with almonds — to the more unusual — fleur de sel, or sea salt.

“We mainly produce dark chocolate,” says Rick, “We have a dedication to people who don’t eat dairy.”

But what makes their chocolate “artisan chocolate”?

“The whole process,” Rick (obviously the more talkative of the two) says. “One has to be at par with the whole process. Finding the best farmers, the best cooperatives, and going down to the regions and buying the beans ourselves.” This attention adds to the price, of course — a 2.5-ounce bar sells for about $12.

“We wanna be like the local butcher,” Rick states hopefully, adding that he’d like his customers to develop a certain level of trust with their product.

Walking over to the table where Stephanie Ault (one of six employees at the factory) is sorting out the cacao beans, Rick runs through the entire process, from the sifting to the husking, to the crushing and to the mixing, to the cooling and to the cutting. The aroma in the mixing room is stronger, as the mixers gently roll the mounds of thick chocolate over and over.

In the mixers, the chocolate being twisted and twirled is almost hypnotic. That, coupled with the aroma … and one is in a trance.

With cacao beans flying in from the Dominican Republic to Madagascar, and from Brazil to Venezuela, what do the Brothers Mast look for in a bean?

“That it’s delicious,” Rick answers intently, “If it’s delicious, everything else tends to follow.”

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Competition is fierce at Fulton Fish Market, to a Point


At the Fulton Fish Market at Hunt’s Point, the oldest and largest fish market cooperative in the country, competition is fierce.

A struggling economy and an open market arena contribute to the competitively charged atmosphere. However, as a cooperative, vendors also come to rely on everyone’s company prospering, at least enough so that they can all stay in business.

Vendors are in direct competition with one another, as restaurant buyers and market suppliers weave through the warehouse, perusing the selection. The market “handles millions of pounds of seafood daily”, according to its Web site, and a lot of vendors are selling similar products, so haggling with the customers becomes an art.

Angelo Rosa has been working for Blue Ribbon Fish Co., Inc., a business at the market, for 24 years. A small man of Portuguese descent with a booming voice, he horses around with customers, jokingly calling them names and miming karate moves in their direction.

Late night hours—the market is open from 1 am until 7 am, Monday to Friday—don’t seem to affect his mood.  However, Rosa does turn serious when talking about the market and sales.  He says he cuts deals for loyal customers and that bargaining is part of the sale.

As prospective customers wander by, looks of disinterest on their face, kicking at boxes filled with ice and large fish, Rosa works to engage them into his playful banter.  Some are receptive, some continue to the next vendor.

“It’s the most unpredictable market you can imagine,” said Rosa.

Richard Montelbano can attest to that.  He works at Monte Seafood and after the economy took a turn for the worse last year, the company was forced to reduce their staff from 21 to 12.  Montelbano, a tall and lanky man who glides around the pallets of boxes containing fish as if by second nature, said they are determined to “go with the flow.”  He said the company has to carry on with the competition of market life.

“It’s all about sales.”

Sales are the driving force behind the market and the competition between vendors is palpable.  Rosa said many of the vendors lie to one another over the prices of their fish.

“You don’t want anyone to go out of business, but it’s competitive.”

It’s not pure generosity that influences Rosa’s wish to see his competitors stay open.  As a part of a cooperative, all the businesses operating at the Fulton Fish Market rely on one another to keep their own costs down.

The New Fulton Fish Market Cooperative at Hunt’s Point Inc. operates the market and the facility, which until four years ago was located on Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan. The huge, warehouse-style building is managed by the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

Dan Kim of Alaskan Feast said, “Since it’s a coop, if one company goes under we as a coop have to absorb the loss of revenue for rent.”

Unwinding as the long night draws to an end—it’s approaching six am—Kim is mostly finished selling to customers.  As his coworkers go about organizing the seafood that hasn’t sold, he slips outside for a few minutes.  The early morning air seems colder than the refrigerated warehouse. Leaning against the wall, Kim describes the cooperative’s operations.

Each business pays a share of the rent and utility costs of the facility that houses the market. The warehouse is divided into stalls and each business occupies one or more stalls, depending on how big their business is.  Kim said that Alaskan Feast, which occupies two stalls, costs approximately $9000 a month in rent and utility bills.

Kim estimates that if a business goes under the rise in costs for the other businesses is about five to 20 percent, depending on the size of the business.  When Arrow Seafood went out of business, “it was just upsetting.”

While only four operations have gone out of business since the move from Fulton Street to Hunt’s Point in 2005—Mazur Bros. and Jaffe Food Co. Inc., Soho Seafood Inc., and Sunrise Seafood Inc. closed before Arrow—Kim thinks that a few more businesses are not far behind.

Kim also said that when a new business comes in to fill the empty spaces, coop prices remain the same. Right now though, he has to get back to work, as the day is about to end.  He ducks back inside the warehouse, where the sun has yet to rise.

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Angel Moinas and the American dream


El Maguey is Angel Moinas's new Mexican restaurant at 142nd and Broadway in Manhattan.


Angel Moinas paid a coyote, a smuggler of illegals, $800 in 1982 for a ride from Tijuana, Mexico, to Los Angeles.  The trip from Ecuador, where he is from, to Mexico had been legal, and he traveled by bus.  This leg of the journey, however, meant four hours lying in the trunk of a car. “Full music in my ears — when I get out in Los Angeles, I can hear nothing,” Moinas recalls.

Once Moinas arrived in Los Angeles it was a simple matter to fly to New York City. In those days, airlines were not overly concerned about the immigration status of their customers.  He soon found work as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

Now, Moinas, 47, has a new restaurant, El Maguey, at 142nd and Broadway in Upper Manhattan.  It is  Mexican, family style, with orange walls and seating for 60.  Three flat-screen televisions playing muted action movies are mounted on the walls and Latin music plays softly.

It is a Wednesday night, October 21st, and El Maguey has only been open for six days.  So far, business has been slow, but he is not concerned.  He doesn’t have a liquor license yet, and he expects that when he is able to sell alcohol his business will improve dramatically.

Moinas has good reason to believe that a liquor license will improve business at El Maguey — his other restaurant, La Posada, is literally a block away at 143rd and Broadway and is doing well with its liquor license.  La Posada is less suited to family dining and feels more like a bar, but the establishments are similar enough that Moinas expects to be able to replicate La Posada’s success.

Becoming a restaurateur was not a speedy process for Moinas.  His first obstacle was his immigration status.  Fortunately for Moinas, Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act on November 6, 1986.  The act allowed certain illegal immigrants to apply for amnesty, and Moinas made the cut.  As a result, he is now a U.S. citizen.

The second obstacle for Moinas was money.  He didn’t make much as a dishwasher, but soon worked his way up to becoming a cook and then a sous-chef.  He worked long days, saved fastidiously, and after about 12 years had acquired enough money to return to Ecuador and open a restaurant.  A year and a half later, however, Ecuador converted its currency from the sucre to the dollar. The U.S. dollars Moinas had saved had gone a long way when converted to sucre, but didn’t seem to stretch as far once the currency converted. The cost of running his restaurant rose, but his revenue didn’t keep up. Eventually, he went broke.


Moinas relaxes in his new restaurant.

Moinas returned to New York in 2000 to start over. This time he started as a “black car driver” for a company that chauffeured corporate executives.  He worked long hours for four years to save money.  On some days he would start an afternoon shift at 3 p.m. and not return home until 8 the next morning.  He had a new wife and baby daughter at home, but he needed to earn enough money to pull ahead.  Finally, in 2004, Moinas took the plunge again and opened La Posada with two friends.

Owning a restaurant did not make Moinas rich. He couldn’t afford enough staff to run the place, so he worked as a cook himself, often putting in 14-hour days.  After a year he bought out one of his partners and a year later he bought out the other.  The buyouts only put Moinas in debt, however.  He  needed $50,000 and the only way he could get it was through loans from friends and family in the Ecuadorean community.  Those loans came with exorbitant interest rates.  On a $5,000 loan, for instance, he would have to make payments of $250 per month in interest until he had paid off the principal, a rate which is approximately 60 percent annually.

Moinas has had to fight and pay for everything he has acquired in life.  Now that he is the sole owner of La Posada and has paid off his debts he still isn’t in the clear — his landlord has not yet renewed his lease, which expires in two months, so Moinas is on tenterhooks again.  He has opened El Maguey partly as a hedge against the possibility that his lease for La Posada will not be renewed.

Operating two restaurants means that Moinas must pay $14,000 a month in rent.  Asked if he was rich, he laughed.  “I have too many bills,” Moinas said.  “It’s crazy.”  In fact, Moinas and his wife, Janet, both still work full time.  La Posada stays open until 4 a.m., which means that Moinas often doesn’t get home until almost six in the morning.  As a result, he says, he rarely sees his daughter, Hailey, who is now 8.  He is asleep when she gets up to go to school and she is asleep when he gets home.

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New York health code not pet friendly


When is dog-friendly too friendly?

A Michigan man recently wound up in Judge Judy’s televised court, fighting over a dog in a restaurant.

It may seem like a simple matter, but restaurants in New York City can be shut down if a dog is there and even the Federal government has considered the problems of pets and eating in public.

After shopping with his wife and dog at Partridge Creek Mall in Clinton Township, Mich., David Alan of Keego Creek, Mich., decided to have dinner at a nearby restaurant. The couple was seated in the outdoors dining area until it began to rain, then they went inside to finish their meal.

Alan claims his dog, Marco, was inside a pink and brown carrier while he and his wife finished their meals at the bar. As they left,  fellow patron, Virginia Eldridge, said to Alan’s wife, “You really should know that they could close this restaurant for you bringing your dog in here.”

Offended by Eldridge’s statement, Alan confronted Eldridge and a melee ensued. In the end, Alan’s glasses were broken and they wound up in front of Judge Judy, who  dismissed Alan’s case stating, “You acted inappropriately, Mr. Alan. Frankly I’m not sure why you’re here.”

America has long been a country that cherished the companionship of dogs. In cities like New York, many establishments allow patrons to bring their pooches indoors. While it is courteous to be dog friendly, in many instances it is a violation of the health code.

The Food and Drug Administration, which creates guidelines for the handling of food in restaurants and grocery stores, prohibits live animals, excluding fish in tanks and service animals, in establishments that serve food. The regulations are in place owing to the health  concern that animals could contaminate food if employees touch them and don’t wash their hands.

Michael Hernon, a press officer for the FDA, said in an email that the “FDA does issue guidelines regarding animals in food establishments under the FDA Food Codes and states health agencies are free to adopt the guidelines as they see fit.”

The New York City Department of Health has adopted the guidelines that also restrict animals in outdoor eating areas. Several cited violations can close down restaurants but the threat of closing down doesn’t stop restaurant owners from allowing animals in and outside of their establishments.

Franks, an Italian restaurant in the East Village is marked as a dog-friendly restaurant on The restaurant is in two sections – a dining area and a bar. Each has a separate entrance and two very different atmospheres. The restaurant is a brightly lit dining area filled with patrons during the day. The bar, that comfortable fits about 20 people, has a communal dining table. Despite the bright light of the sun, the dimly lit room looks even darker because of the dark wood of the table and bar itself.

The wine director, Eamon, who requested to have his full name withheld, said the restaurant is very popular among the dog owners in the neighborhood. During the summer months, patrons bring their dogs to the outdoor dining area. He also admits that patrons bring their pets indoors.

“Dog’s aren’t supposed to be allowed inside but we let it slide. We’re not doing anything criminal,” he said.

Franks has been open for 11 years and hasn’t been closed for any violations. For years regulars have brought their dogs in – often placed in corners – with little complaint from other patrons.

“Ninety-nine percent of people are cool about it. As long as it’s not a rambunctious dog,” he said. “We had a regular who had four yappy dogs. We told him you can’t have the dogs inside anymore. We have an employee who brings his dog and he lays in the corner. Nobody even notices.”

Eamon considers the restaurant’s actions a part of good customer service. Patrons get to eat and keep an eye on their dogs.

He is also unsure of the ramification of violating the ordinance.

If an animal is found in the indoor or outdoor dining area of a food establishment, a value point is given for the violation. Each violation is assigned a base point value and additional points are added to a violation to reflect the severity of the violation. Having live animals in a food establishment is considered by the city a critical violation. Depending on the condition – the number of animals found in the establishment – the violation can carry five to eight points. A score of 28 points or higher warrants a re-inspection of the facility. Further violations can lead to the establishment’s closing by the Department of Health.

“Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a Federal law, privately owned businesses that serve the public are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed. Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars or harnesses. Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers,” said Herndon.

This year, three food service establishments in the city have been cited for having dogs in an outdoor eating area and 29 for having dogs indoors.

Many dog owners appreciate the restaurants that violate the regulations.

Lisa Neilsen, a nutrition and wellness coach, owns a Bichon Frise, named Bowie. She often takes the 16-month-old dog to cafes near her home on Greenwich Avenue. She doesn’t take Bowie inside restaurants because he is “ too young to sit and be well behaved.” But she has been to restaurants where dogs are inside.

“I like it. I know it’s against the law. But if you’re going to run in to grab a coffee it’s OK. Dog owners know whether their dogs can handle it,” she said. Speaking about Bowie, she said, “He does go after food. He is not so well trained. I have to keep a close watch.”

But not everyone is enthused by dog-friendly restaurants. Anthony John disapproves of dogs in restaurants.

As a bellman at the Bowery Hotel – a dog-friendly hotel in the East Village – he sees many dogs throughout his day, especially at the Gemma Restaurant connected to the hotel. The restaurant is also listed on as dog-friendly, but according to the manager dogs are only allowed in the outdoor dining area during the summer.

John has never eaten at Gemma or any establishment that allows dogs. He does not have any pets but sees many people in the neighborhood going in and out of restaurants, cafes and grocery stores with their dogs.

“It’s gross,” he exclaimed. “That’s where you eat. Dogs carry dander and fleas.”

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In downturn, Harlem sees hope in opening restaurants

In downturn, Harlem sees hope in opening restaurants


(Photos by Vadim Lavrusik)


After running a small cupcake shop in the West Village for three years, Tonnie Rozier decided to come back to his roots by opening up a second shop in Harlem.

Rozier, 40, said he hadn’t considered opening up a shop in Harlem because the rent always seemed so high. But when a friend approached him with a location off Lenox Avenue in Central Harlem last spring with a great rent price, he couldn’t resist.

He considered the fact that he was taking a risk with the recession taking a toll on small and big businesses alike. But Rozier was looking further ahead, and already noticing new businesses moving into the neighborhood. And it was a homecoming for the Harlemite who grew up and has lots of family there.

Tonnie’s Minis Opens in Harlem (Audio by Vadim Lavrusik)

“Harlem has been on its way back for many years now. And I saw the vision, but never thought it would become what is has become today,” Rozier said.

Though there’s more than 40 cupcake shops in Manhattan, Tonnie’s Minis is the first in Harlem. But it’s not the only first for a neighborhood that is seeing new food businesses (map) opening up and the community buzzing that these are signs of economic recovery.

Part of the buzz stems from new jobs that these new restaurants will create. Applebee’s alone is hiring 250 new workers for next week’s opening off 125th Street. The neighborhood is also awaiting the openings of several restaurants off Lenox Avenue, including a Jamaican and soul food restaurant called Jams, rotisserie chicken shack Spinners, and OneBar, a high-scale bar.

Though the exact number of restaurants opened in Harlem in the last year was unavailable, Community Board 10 has approved 49 liquor licenses so far this year.

Franc Perry, chairman of Community Board 10, which represents Central Harlem, said though he didn’t want to jump to conclusions on what that means, he certainly is optimistic about the opportunities it brings into Central Harlem – a neighborhood with an unemployment rate topping 20 percent. The city’s overall rate is 10.3 percent.

Though there has been a spurt of restaurants openings in Harlem, Andrew Rigie, director of operations at New York State Restaurant Association, said there is no doubt that the economy has still created a dip in restaurants’ sales. People are cutting back on going out, and one would think that Harlem would be worse off than other neighborhoods with such a high jobless rate. Though more new restuarants are opening, those that have been open longer have better chances of weathering the stark economy because they already have a customer base, experience and operating capital, Rigie said.

Harlem welcomes ‘Eatin’ good in the neighborhood’

So why would anyone want to open a restaurant during such economic turmoil, and why in Harlem? For Zane Tankel, CEO of Apple-Metro, which operates 34 Applebee’s locations in the New York metro area, the answer is simple. Demand in Harlem, plus cheap rent, a dash of risk, and years of experience is why Tankel is opening an Applebee’s on 125th Street.

“I think it is an underserved community,” Tankel said. “There are few places there right now where a large group of people can go in and sit down and get some good food for a reasonable price.”

Damaa Bell, who writes the UPTOWNFlavor blog on food news, said she thinks the new Applebee’s will be successful in Harlem because there is a shortage of restaurants that can accommodate large groups.

“When you think of dining in Harlem they are often small venues that can accommodate up to 10 diners max. An Applebee’s would be popular with families,” Bell said.

Bell points out that an Applebee’s just opened in the Marble Hill area has been successful because it is the only eatery of its type in the neighborhood, which she says is similar to Harlem.

Tankel said he also hopes he can attract some late-night customers. Though many restaurants in the area close around 9 p.m., Applebee’s will be open until midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. He acknowledges that maybe there is a lack of late-night demand or owners worry about crime, but said that is something he will have to re-evaluate after seeing how business goes.

“We’ll see how it pans out because we’re not immune to the economy, but we’ve definitely made the adjustments,” Tankel said. Though sales are down a bit at some of his locations, Tankel said they attract people by offering them value deals like bundling menu items with a $20 deal for an appetizer and two entrees. This keeps the total bill higher for the restaurant, but is still a good deal for the customers, he said.

On Tuesday, the restaurant’s hiring center was full of people filling out applications for the 250 full- and part-time positions available. The Labor Department reported Friday that the national jobless rate had dropped from 10.2 to 10 percent, the strongest report since the recession began – a glimmer of hope for those that have recently lost jobs.

Jeffrey McCaskill, 20, stopped in between classes at The College of Technology to fill out an application for a cook. McCaskill, who is currently unemployed, said he needs to get a job to help pay the family bills.

He’s predicting the restaurant, which sits at the corner of 125 Street and 5th Avenue, will be really busy despite the downturn.

“Sure people are struggling, but I think you’re starting to see more places opening up and they’re starting to build again,” he said. “It’s great. It gives a chance for people to get a job.”

McCaskill is one of 5,000 people that had filled out applications as of Thursday, according to Tankel.

“I hope I get it,” McCaskill said.

Real estate and a developing neighborhood

Though Tankel had been looking to open a franchise in Harlem for about six years, each time a potential location came up he was faced with obstacles in construction or price.

However, with the drop in real estate prices, rents in the neighborhood have gone down dramatically too, which is why Tankel took advantage of the location, he said.

Charles Belanger, a real estate broker turned restaurant owner, knows that better than anyone.

“The market obviously collapsed,” he said. “So I went into the chicken business.”

Belanger, who was a broker for more than 20 years in Manhattan, took his store front real estate office off Lenox Avenue and turned it into a rotisserie chicken and sandwich shop. On Thursday, he was working on cleaning the entryway of the shop on its first day open. Customers slowed to see what the new restaurant had to offer, some eyeing the side real estate office signs still visible from its previous incarnation..

Belanger already had the location and didn’t want to just give up on the space. A food business made sense for the neighborhood, he said.
“People gotta eat.”

Because it is a low-income neighborhood, he said it wouldn’t make sense to open an electronics store, which would be difficult to compete with a big box store that gets its products less expensibely from overseas.

“You can’t ship a roast beef sandwich from China though,” he said.

Belanger said he decided to stay in Central Harlem because of the growth in real estate development and businesses the neighborhood has seen in recent years.

“Harlem does have a bright future,” he said. “It’s an area in Manhattan that has seen a lot of growth in recent years.”

He said a combination of factors like city tax breaks contributed to the growth. Also, The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Corp. has given $2.5 million in loans over the last 12 years to restaurants in Harlem, giving them the necessary cash to get started.

But most residents will point to the Clinton Foundation’s move into the neighborhood and its sweeping efforts to improve the neighborhood. Last year, the foundation launched the Harlem Restaurant Program, which used public funds and tax incentives to teach restauranteurs in the neighborhood better business skills.

Richard Howard, who stops at Rozier’s new cupcake shop almost eveyday after he picks his kids up from school, said ever since Clinton’s foundation came to Harlem a lot of new businesses moved into the neighborhood.

“I think that Harlem has kinda become the new mecca of new businesses,” Howard said. “It’s becoming like a SoHo or Delancey street. Well, now it’s Harlem.”

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‘Tis the (wettest) season: An apple orchard weathers the storm

‘Tis the (wettest) season: An apple orchard weathers the storm


George Vurno lives by the weather. The owner and manager of Masker Orchards, a pick-your-own apple orchard in Warwick, N.Y., checks hour-by-hour forecasts on his computer and turns to the Weather Channel, Channel 12, CBS, and NBC twice a day to answer a question that is constantly on his mind: Is it going to rain?

Whether it is growing season or picking season, he needs to know. Right now, it is picking season at Masker Orchards, located about 55 miles northwest of Manhattan, and people are coming by the thousands to pluck Vurno’s ripened apples.

To keep them happy and fed and spending while they pick, 69-year-old Vurno orders soda, hot dog rolls, hot dogs, cider, ice cream, pizza, and apple pie which he sells at the entertainment square at the bottom of the hillside orchard.  In the entertainment square, a collection of converted barns, visitors can roam a pumpkin patch, ride a pony, walk through a haunted house and gorge on apple pie, cider and strudel.

“The only way to order them,” Vurno says, “is to know what the weather is going to be.”

If it is going to rain, people won’t come, and food orders go to waste.

Vurno is a tall, broad shouldered man with a tanned and stubbly face. When he smiles, he could pass for former New York City mayor Rudy Guliani’s twin brother. He was fooled last week because he expected rain on Sunday and decided to place half orders. It didn’t rain and he was short on supplies. This week, Vurno wasn’t expecting rain on Sunday, so he put in a full order. Now, the weather is telling Vurno that it is going to rain and he doesn’t want to be fooled again.

“Maybe I’m better off only half ordering,” Vurno says, laughing wheezily.

Vurno will be doing a lot of weather watching between now and November, when he will begin pruning the trees in preparation for winter.

Warwick’s official apple season began Labor Day and, on a good weekend, 20,000 cars carry residents of New York and neighboring states through the tree-lined hillsides of Orange County to Vurno’s 200-acre orchard. Masker made the switch from commercial orchard to pick-your-own in 1971 and was the first to do so in New York. For no admission fee, pickers park their cars among the rows of 15,000 apple trees–McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Red Delicious, Jonagold, and Ida Reds—and eat as many apples as they’d like. Upon entry, they recieve plastic bags that they can pack with apples they pick, but don’t eat, and they must pay $24.95 for every bag they fill as they exit the farm.

Vurno is nervous because the low temperatures in June and July broke records along the northeast, and rainfall is running 50 to 100 percent higher than normal around the region, according to

“It was a lot more expensive,” Vurno says of this year’s growing season. “We had to do a lot more maintenance in the orchard because of all that rain.”

Two of Vurno’s biggest costs were mowing the excess grass and grading the rain-damaged roads that lead customers through the orchard—Cider Lane, Strudel Lane, Pie Lane, and Sauce Lane.

One benefit of a wetter season is bigger apples. They draw customer attention and give Vurno a chance to make back some of the money he lost re-paving roads and repairing damaged trees because fewer of these large apples fit into each of the half-bushel plastic bags customers receive upon entering the orchard. But customers won’t have a chance to be in awe of Vurno’s apples if the rain keeps them away.

It is a lack of control that frustrates Vurno, a former Brooklyn trial lawyer who bought into the farm in 1969.

“When I was a lawyer, I had the illusion that I was in control,” Vurno says. “Now that I’m a farmer, I know absolutely positively I am not in control. The weather and mother nature are in control.”

And so is the economy. Recession-struck suppliers have raised their prices for everything from fertilizer to machine parts to hot dogs. Three years ago, potash fertilizer cost Vurno $425 a ton; this year, he paid $950 a ton for 15 tons.

“That’s $7000 to $8000 just out of one little stinking item,” he says in disbelief.

And  medical insurance has increased for his six full-time employees, three of them named George, which Vurno pointed out means “farmer” in Greek.

The increased costs for Masker Orchards have been passed on to its customers. The price of a half-bushel bag that carries roughly 20 pounds of apples has increased since last year from $19.95 to $24.95. Now, because of higher prices and larger apples, customers are paying more than ever for less fruit.

“We saw $24.95 a bag and thought ‘Wow!’” says Keith Santos, whose family traveled from Brooklyn to visit Masker for the first time last year, and came back this year to picnic among the apple trees.

Keith’s mother, Stella, chimes in, “May as well buy the apple pie; it’s already baked!”

Tom Bakalis, who also traveled from the city to pick apples, says he definitely noticed the prices.

“I think the bags got smaller, too,” he jokes. “I’m going to see how many I can squeeze in.”

Even the price of a hot dog has gone up a few cents. Sean Dolan, who recently lost his job as a roofer and has been coming to the orchard from Pearl River, N.Y., for four years with his wife and two daughters, noticed the change.

“It’s like being at a Yankee’s game;  ”$2.50 for a 30 cent item” he said.

But Vurno insists that he has tried to keep prices low, and prides himself on carrying high quality products.

“We’re trying to hold the line,” he says. “We’re trying to keep it an economical day in the country.”

Vurno’s pies, strudels, and cider are made off-site using Masker apples. He meets cider delivery trucks and takes several gulps before accepting any bottles. Vurno spent years searching for a family that had the best recipe for his apples before offering apple pies at his farm.

“I wouldn’t serve crap,” he says. “I needed something special.”

The customers come back year after year.

“We’ve been coming here a long time,” says Cheryl Cacioppo, of Kinnelon, N.J., who has been returning to Masker with her husband, Paul, for 16 years.

Paul started coming to Masker 30 years ago and now brings his young son and daughter each year to share with them a tradition that was passed onto him. He remembers knocking apples down from the tops of the highest trees with bamboo poles the orchard once supplied.

Nicole Cosimano also started coming to Masker Orchards when she was a child and started working there at age 12. She is now 31 and the office manager of the farm, overseeing 100 mostly teenage workers who direct traffic, sell food, and operate the entertainment square during the picking season.

“We used to just have apples and we had three lanes,” she remembers.

Newcomers to Masker enjoy it, too. Leila Franklin of Patterson, N.J., brought her two teenage children apple picking for the first time this season because she picked apples as a young girl.

“I am teaching them what we used to do,” says Franklin. “There’s clean air, it’s safe, everybody is enjoying themselves.”

At the top of the hill, near where Franklin is standing, you can see parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. The orchard is surrounded by green, rolling hills and tall trees blushing red and orange. But at the bottom of the hill, at the corner of the entertainment square, Vurno sits in a little blue house that serves as his office, and he continues to worry. After the expensive, rainy growing season, he needs the sun to shine so that people will come to Masker. But Vurno doesn’t know what to expect this season.

“In ‘05 we had a beautiful crop and it rained every weekend in October,” says Vurno. “We had this one system that kept coming back and forth. It would go out to sea, then it would come back, and it seemed to come back every weekend. We had half the number of cars and a crop that went to waste.”

Vurno’s outlook changes as often as the weather, and there is only one thing that he knows for sure.

“It’s supposed to rain tomorrow and that is going to kill us.”

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Mozzarella Secrets

Mozzarella Secrets


Ninety-one-year-old Georgiana de Palma knows how to make good mozzarella. She learned to make the cheese at Tedone Latticini Diary Products, the store her parents opened in Brooklyn in 1922. But she’s not ready to give up her cheese making secret to just anyone.

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Day of the Dead starts at the bakery

Day of the Dead starts at the bakery


Mexican bakeries all over New York City are preparing pan de muerto, Spanish for bread of the dead, for the Day of the Dead celebration on Nov. 1. But Panaderia Caotzingo on 76-11 Roosevelt Avenue in Queens is anything but dead during the week before the holiday as customers bustle in and load trays with pan de muerto fresh from the oven. Baker Sergio Rodriguez, 22, makes 270 pieces of dome-shaped ‘’dead bread’’ each day, sized as small as the palm of a hand for $1.50, or bigger than a grown man’s face for $12. The sweet, cinnamon-infused bread is decorated with bits of cooked dough shaped like bones.

Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) has been celebrated by Mexican Indians for centuries. To them, it is the day the dead come back to visit the living–friends, relatives, and loved ones. Often, Catholic families make offerings at the graves of their loved ones, leaving them their favorite food, or even their favorite vice, be it cigarettes or alcohol. But they always leave pan de muerto, says bakery worker Yessica Rodriguez, 23, who is originally from the 300-person Southern Mexican town of San Jose Chilipa.. Rodriquez’s grandmother on her mother’s side died six years ago; each year, her family back home takes the 25-minute walk to the local cemetery.

When they arrive at the cemetery, located between mango trees and a cornfield, they make a velvet shrine and lay offerings of bean and chicken tamales, chocolates and purple flowers—any kind, as long as they’re purple. Her late grandfather gets a single Marlboro Red cigarette. When Rodriguez dies, she says she would like to have an offering of bean and chicken tamales, just like her grandmother. But she’s too busy to think about death right now—she must finish a sale to Cristian Moran, 26, from Guerrero, another state in Southern Mexico.

Moran has lived in the United States for six years. His grandfather died one month ago, but instead of going to Mexico, he sent $200 to relatives back home. He said people don’t celebrate Day of the Dead in New York City as much as they did in his hometown.

Bakery manager Sergio Najera, 54, agrees. Most Mexicans who die in New York City have their remains sent home, he says, so there is little reason to celebrate in local cemeteries. Adults tend to honor the dead privately, and children have another tradition to enjoy: Halloween.

Zeltzin Rosendo, 10, is excited for the 31st of October.

“They give you candy on Halloween and you get to get dressed up,” she says, standing next to the window displays that shows off piles of pan de muerto to people who walk past. She is not a fan of putting food on graves.

“That kind of creeps me out a bit,” she says.

Her brother died in the womb this past year, and this will be the first time they lay an offering to him. They will leave him pan de muerto.

Some people prefer neither Halloween nor a Day of the Dead in America. Queens resident Enrique Jimenez remembers his childhood experience with pan de muerto as he makes a quick visit to the bakery.

“I would buy the bread when I was little, or my mom baked it, but not too much anymore,” he says.

This year he will gather with his cousins and his brother, who is bringing pan de muerto from Mexico.

“This bread has a different flavor,” he says. “The original flavor is from Mexico.”

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Fulton Fish Market feels the pinch

Fulton Fish Market feels the pinch


Inside a white room the size of a toll booth, Diana Chicolo slides her window open at the tapping of a seafood distributor’s fingers. The warehouse air, regulated at 40 degrees, wafts in through her heated office, as she glances at the yellow receipt the distributor hands her.

“$186, even. Do you pay by check?”

For 13 years, Chicolo, 38, has been the bookkeeper for Caleb Haley & Co., one of the oldest and largest seafood wholesalers at the Fulton Fish Market. Between sips of coffee she said, “The fish market is not as busy as it used to be. It’s definitely dwindling.”

While it remains the largest wholesale seafood market in the U.S., the Fulton Fish Market has been shrinking in recent years. Four shops have closed since 2005 — a significant number in a market dominated by third-generation businesses — and many wholesalers cite sales decreases of 10 to 30 percent.

Caleb Haley, operating since 1859, is a big name at the market. Like those of the other 30 or so wholesalers, Caleb Haley’s core customers are seafood purveyors who distribute to restaurants and other eating establishments.

Sporting a navy blue baseball hat and jacket, a heavy-set Joseph Serrantonio, 52, oversees tuna and swordfish sales for the family-run business. He says the economic downturn has decreased his sales by 10 to 15 percent since last year. While the Zagat survey recently reported that 157 notable restaurants opened and 102 closed this year, Chicolo and Serrantonio both said the closings have impacted the wholesale business.

One of Caleb Haley’s longtime customers, David Coopersmith, 52, has been distributing seafood for Scandia Seafood for about 20 years. On any given day, he can buy 300 to 1,000 pounds, spending between $3,000 and $10,000, but he said demand from customers, including restaurants, is down 14 percent from last year. The economic downturn is “affecting us a little bit,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Chicolo also said the market’s relocation from downtown Manhattan in 2005 created a barrier for smaller buyers and passers-by. “People from Chinatown used to buy two to three pieces of fish,” she said “Now coming here means a lot of gas, time and parking fees.” The fish market charges $5 for drivers who wish to purchase seafood; those who brave the two-hour subway and bus ride have to pay a $2 pedestrian’s entry fee.

Opposite Caleb Haley, Anthony DeVito, 35, stands behind purple and red nets and white cardboard boxes of clams, oysters and mussels. It is a lot drier here. The third generation owner of the family-run New Seafood, DeVito has been working at the market for 32 years. “With the economy the way it is, business is down a little bit,” he said. He sells 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of shellfish, or about $30,000 a week. “It’s off by probably 30 percent” since last year, he said. He mulled over the number, chuckled and said, “I try not to look at it. You look at it, you just want to cry. The bills are getting paid. I’m happy with that.” He said the decreased demand has particularly hit high-end shellfish such as Maine oysters that require diving to obtain them.

On the other side of the 400,000-square-foot warehouse, Joel Rivera, 28, with a shaven head and solid build, maneuvers his forklift to unload fish onto the floor of Montauk Seafood. Having worked at the market for six years, he said, “I noticed a change in the money that the market was pushing. All the fish that was on the floor, all the fish that was being delivered. And there’s just such a big difference now.” He continued, “It just keeps getting smaller. Guys are getting laid off.”

Pan Sing Long, 35, a fish cutter at Caleb Haley, can certainly attest to that. After the company laid off two workers last year, he has had to double his responsibilities.

Meanwhile, outside the Fulton Fish Market, Restaurant Depot, a private wholesaler of food and supplies to restaurants, delis and grocery stores, has been aggressively growing, with 13 locations in New York and New Jersey. Staffed by former restaurant owners, chefs and food service specialists and offering thousands of food products at each location, the store calls itself the “the low-cost alternative to other foodservice suppliers,” according to its Web site. “A lot of restaurants are going to Restaurant Depot,” Chicolo said. “They buy in bulk,” and can get the seafood “frozen and cheaper.”

A line of purveyors grew outside Chicolo’s window, and, her wavy auburn hair highlighted against her white sweatshirt, she continued ringing up the purchases: $858.25, $4,742.68, $476.19. “It’s Thursday. It’s a busy day,” she said.

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